The day has finally come. One of cinema’s most esoteric, obtuse-sounding pairings has finally been realized. “Drive,” the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, deftly blends two dissimilar cinematic worlds: those of the art and action film. In its sensibilities, it’s at one with any of the most popular art films to come out of Europe in the past 10 years. And yet, particularly in the later half, it adopts a distinctly 70s action crime film vibe. It’s about as strange a pairing as can be found in film; it’s unlike anything I have ever seen before.
I feel obligated to inform anyone who wants to see “Drive” that they should bring an open mind. More important, they should be prepared to see one of the best action films ever made.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) drives. By day, when not working as a mechanic, he drives as a stuntman for films. But by night, he drives for anyone, no questions asked, as long as they pay. Naturally, this means he’s involved with criminals. But, just as he does with everything else, he distances himself to keep from getting caught.
He has no real friends to speak of, and he doesn’t have much of a way with words either. But one day he helps his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), and a bond develops between the two —matched only by an equally strong bond between Driver and Irene’s son Benicio. And, as is the case with any film like this, their newfound interaction changes (at least one of) their lives forever.
Unlike seemingly every action movie ever released, “Drive” isn’t actually concerned with its action. There’s plenty in the way of shootouts and car chases, especially in the later portions of the film, but “Drive” is a movie in which the characters and their relationships trump the need for bloodshed and mayhem. The central relationship between Driver and Irene is involving and subtly touching. It’s not quite romantic, but there are hints that these two look at each other as more than friends. Because Driver rarely speaks, there’s a remarkable sense of ambiguity in their feelings for each other. They clearly care for each other, but “Drive” does a stunning job crafting their interactions with enough finesse and confidence that the relationship, although shrouded in silence, is completely believable. In other words, these characters are fully three-dimensional, not cardboard cut-outs. By the midway point, I had completely invested myself in Driver, Irene and Benicio. By the time the action kicks in, I was already hooked.
And the action does kick in. Like its titular character, once “Drive” gets going, it doesn’t stop. The film’s second half is filled with suspenseful chases, confrontations and shootouts, all of which are riveting. There are two car chases in “Drive,” both of which are amongst the finest ever captured on screen. What’s more, the car chase that opens the film manages to fray the nerves despite hardly ever going above the speed limit.
One thing that every scene in the movie has in common — whether a car chase or a quiet, character-driven conversation — is Refn’s absolutely gorgeous cinematography. He’s displayed an accomplished use of color and shot composition in the past, most recently in 2009’s visually sumptuous “Valhall a Rising” and in the Tom Hardy showcase, “Bronson”, and that holds true in “Drive” as well. In many ways, this is one of the most visually stimulating and sublimely beautiful films I’ve seen in years (and it has a gritty, super-cool “Bullitt” style vibe too? I think I’m in heaven). From the intricately-constructed opening, to the staccato, Tarantino-inspired bursts of over-the-top violence, to the moody, evocative slow-mo shots, Refn solidifies himself as a master of using style to enhance substance.
Gosling is as good as ever as the often-mute Driver. The character is the definition of the strong, silent type, and Gosling understands this and conveys volumes with his facial expressions. His eyes, in particular, reveal a layer of depth almost universally absent from action heroes. Gosling has been off the scene for a few years, but he’s been surging of late with last year’s “Blue Valentine” and three films due out this year (he’ll next be seen in the George Clooney-directed “The Ides of March”).
Mulligan likewise continues her ascension as one of today’s must-watch young actresses. Even though she speaks more than Gosling, she understands the power of visual acting as well and provides a fully-formed, involving and ultimately tragic figure. Bryan Cranston, as Driver’s emplorer, Ron Perlman (chewing the scenery) as a corrupt pizza store owner and Albert Brooks (deliciously nasty) as the main villain of the film provide ample support, but the show, so to speak, belongs to Gosling and Mulligan.
I’m tempted to say that I wouldn’t want every action movie to be like “Drive.” Some part of me thinks I want something more ridiculous, along the lines of February’s cheerfully over-the-top, Nicolas Cage-fronted and similarly titled “Drive Angry” from time to time. Maybe that’s true, but “Drive” is about as strong an argument against that as possible. It’s the type of confident, skillful, inventive film-making absent from cinema these days, and if more action movies some out looking like “Drive,” the world would be a better place.